|Articles, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive on 2014-04-10 20:49Z by Steven|
William Max Nelson, Assistant Professor of History
University of Toronto
A minor nobleman from Alsace, traveling in French colonial Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) on the eve of the French and Haitian revolutions, expressed surprise that “it has not already occurred to some ingenious speculator to monopolize … the fabrication of all mulattoes.”1 Perhaps no one had embarked upon this endeavor, the Baron de Wimpffen speculated, for fear that the metropolitan government would “take advantage of this bright idea to incorporate even the manufacture of the human race into its exclusive privilege.”2 While Wimpffen was clearly satirizing the Exclusif—the much-hated metropolitan monopoly on the trade and manufacture of natural resources and goods from the colonies—his comments reveal something that is not widely recognized about the eighteenth century: there was an understanding that the “fabrication” or “manufacture” of human beings was possible, and even desirable to some.3 Wimpffen’s words are jarring, not only because they raise the possibility that human beings could be manufactured, but also because they do so in an offhand manner, presenting it as a whimsical observation or a delicate joke rather than as a ghastly vision of control and production in which human beings are merely another raw material to be transformed. The topic of sexual relations between people of African and European descent was not an uncommon one in eighteenth-century writing about Saint-Domingue, where it was generally agreed that such unions were more prevalent than in other French colonies; Wimpffen’s comments, however, pointed beyond the usual tropes invoked against the social and moral ramifications of colonial métissage and libertinage (miscegenation and the debased pursuit of sensual pleasure).
Although some masters seem to have profited from the sale of their own mulatto children, Wimpffen was presumably correct in believing that there were no actual businesses on Saint-Domingue that aimed to monopolize “the manufacture of the human race.”4 A decade earlier, however, two men with connections to the colonial administration—former governor-general Gabriel de Bory and a lawyer named Michel-René Hilliard d’Auberteuil—had published works calling for a similar kind of “manufacture.” In Essai sur la population des colonies à sucre (1776) and Considérations sur l’état présent de la colonie française de Saint-Domingue (1776–1777), respectively, Bory and Hilliard d’Auberteuil sketched out separate plans for the large-scale selective breeding of slaves, free people of color, and the white residents of the island.5 Neither viewed his project as a potential business venture; instead, each plan was envisioned as a solution to some of the colony’s most significant social, political, and military problems. Their proposals were not highly detailed; nor were they even the focus of the books in which they were included. Yet they remain of great historical importance because they appear to have been the first suggestions for large-scale selective breeding of humans that was meant to be carried out in a real time and place (rather than the fictional nowhere of utopias) and with the intention of creating a new racial hierarchy.
The existence of these plans raises new questions regarding the relationship between the development of ideas about the selective breeding of human beings and the development of ideas of race. Throughout the second half of the eighteenth century in Europe and the Atlantic world, a fundamental idea was emerging of race as a heritable and inescapable way of being that encompassed physical, moral, intellectual, and psychological characteristics and provided a basis for hierarchical differentiation.6 There was a considerable amount of fluidity and ambiguity within the new ideas and nomenclature, but people were gradually establishing and stabilizing many of the terms, concepts, and scientific questions that would lay the foundation for the more elaborate attempt to create a science of race in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.7 Yet even as modern ideas of race were being formed, some people apparently believed that human beings could be constructed to fit within narrowly defined categories based primarily on skin color and civil status. The possibility of a dynamic circularity in the eighteenth century between making men and making race seems not to have been previously recognized by scholars.8…
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